You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Feature: Launching Lubbock Startups

Lubbock Avalanche-Journal logo Lubbock Avalanche-Journal 10/26/2020 Jason Boyett, Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
a sign on the side of a building: Lubbock Avalanche-Journal © provided photo Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

Kimberly Gramm has been thinking about destruction lately. That might seem odd outside the world of business and entrepreneurship, especially considering her role directing the Innovation Hub at Texas Tech University.

But destruction is often the driving force behind transformation. When it leads to new growth and new opportunity, destruction does more than knock something down. It gives birth to something new. An influential economist named Joseph Schumpeter first came up with the idea of “creative destruction” in 1942, but the past few months of pandemic and uncertainty have shown Lubbock exactly how it plays out.

In March and April, economic closures destroyed many businesses’ abilities to serve their customers in person. So those businesses were forced to pivot. Restaurants stepped up their drive-thru and takeaway capabilities. Small businesses launched apps or renovated websites to offer online sales. Executives learned how to conduct meetings and lead teams remotely.

Those businesses that were nimble enough to find solutions to these real-world problems should end up being more efficient in the future. They’ve grown stronger as a result of these challenges. Those innovations are among the silver linings that may emerge out of the destructive nature of this pandemic.

Creative destruction through problem-solving is at the heart of the Innovation Hub at Research Park. Known informally as The Hub, this 40,000-square-foot facility at 3911 Fourth St. has both an internal and external focus at Texas Tech. As part of the Office of Research and Innovation, it exists as a resource that helps Tech researchers, faculty, students and outside entrepreneurs collaborate in pursuit of the American Dream.

“In a nutshell, I help to support entrepreneurs, faculty, students and our community to launch successful startups,” says Gramm, whose official title is Associate Vice President for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “We provide a whole suite of programming that helps usher the individual from ideation through the scaling and acquisition of a company.”

As a business incubator, the Innovation Hub helps cultivate and accelerate early-growth companies – whether those ventures are related to TTU research or not. Last year, 21 companies were based out of the Hub and it helped more than 16,000 people navigate questions related to entrepreneurship.

Those companies are as diverse as the university itself. For example, one recent Hub client has been Good Line Beer Co., a new craft beer business in Lubbock. Founded by Chris Troutman and Shawn Phillips, the startup found its way out of Troutman’s garage and into the Innovation Hub as the duo sought to transition from hobby to successful business venture.

At The Hub, Good Line connected with mentors and took advantage of entrepreneurial resources as they worked through the details of launching a business and prepared to open a location for their brewery and taproom. Experts at the Hub reviewed Troutman and Phillips’ business plan, walked them through the permitting process and more.

Then, as applicants in the TTU Accelerator program, Good Line even received a $25,000 grant. “They embody what we’re trying to create: A reason for people to stay in a smaller city like Lubbock and feel like they can grow their business and raise their families here,” says Gramm.

The Hub also assists startups who have set their sights beyond a Lubbock customer base. One tenant, TK Quant, is a company that emerged from Tech’s Health Sciences Center and is led by a team that includes both medical and mechanical engineering faculty. Formed in 2017, the team originally wanted to help women who’d had past C-sections attempt natural births. They developed a technology to measure the integrity around a woman’s uterine scar tissue – a factor that could prevent a safe, natural birth in the future. “They really wanted to do a good thing,” Gramm explains, but soon discovered that using their technology to do so would require a vast amount of capital and a long period of testing in order to gain FDA approval. It was a tough economic model.

So at the suggestion of Gramm and her colleagues, the TK Quant team participated in Texas Tech’s National Science Foundation-supported I-Corps program, which is designed to help participants identify novel commercial applications for an idea. “We put them through our program to help them understand who they would engage with as a customer and why there would be hurdles,” Gramm explains. The goal was to help TK Quant find a more efficient economic model.

It worked. In the process, TK Quant’s team members determined that their technology could also be used to measure the tissue integrity of athletes, helping them avoid injuries. With that in mind, the company began pursuing a quicker path into the high school and college sports market. “They wanted to start where they could generate revenue first, with fewer FDA hurdles and financial hurdles,” Gramm says.

So, in other words, they had to destroy their goal of helping women give birth naturally – or at least push it back a few years. That pivot gave them the freedom to innovate in another direction, creating a way to help improve athletic performance and safety.

Pursuing that line of business will help TK Quant develop the expertise and resources to build the cash flow that, eventually, will help them continue toward their original goal.

Dr. Joseph Heppert, Vice President for Research and Innovation at Texas Tech, says the Hub’s nurturing of university research and entrepreneurship is good for Texas Tech and a boon for the region as a whole. For one thing, a diverse economy is a strong economy. West Texas is economically reliant on three core industries: agriculture, health care and energy. Broadening the economy by attracting startups outside these industries is crucial. So is helping small businesses and local entrepreneurs pursue their dreams of success. “Small business forms the largest group of employers and largest group of wealth creators, on average, in the United States,” Heppert says.

But investing in deeper technology ventures at the Hub doesn’t just diversify the Lubbock economy. It can also strengthen those core industries that keep the local ecosystem humming. “We also want to look at opportunities to diversify the economic foundation for the future of those key industries as well,” he says.

To accomplish this, Heppert and Gramm are working to take innovation beyond the square footage of the Hub, creating a vibrant, fully formed innovation district in Lubbock. Together, they hope to bring new technologies and new corporate partnerships to the region that will benefit those local industry pillars. Heppert compares the potential of an innovation district to the products currently coming out of SRI International in Silicon Valley, as well as the Research Triangle in North Carolina.

Consider how innovation could boost the local agriculture industry. “We know that the agricultural economy is under stress because of severe climate situations and a variety of changes in economic forces as well,” Heppert says. “So bringing technologies that are going to help sustain that business and its critical role in economic prosperity in the region is one of the things we are looking at.”

The pandemic has revealed the areas where the medical industry is stressed, and he hopes Tech’s research and entrepreneurial focus can help build a more resilient health care system. “The same can be said with regard to energy. “Clearly, Texas Tech has expertise not only in traditional energy sources but also renewable energy,” says Heppert. University researchers are constantly working on issues related to the energy grid, wind and solar technology and other collaborations. “We see a great opportunity for new business development and job growth in this region that comes out of those relationships,” he says.

Both view their efforts as fitting well within the overall mission of Texas Tech University. “As public universities, we’re supported to educate students clearly as a primary mission, but also to create innovation that’s going to benefit society on a broad level. We have a responsibility to do that. Our role is trying to push out new technologies that are developed here,” Heppert says. “It’s also to partner with the city and the region in fostering new company development and the diversification of the economy. Because we have the capability of doing that on a variety of levels, it’s an incredibly important role for public universities to engage in.”

Gramm agrees. “Part of what university faculty and students and partners need to do is identify solutions to great problems,” she says. “That’s really our role: Materializing [innovation] into actual products, and making sure people have the education they need to take risks.” She says the expertise available for budding small business owners and researchers-turned-entrepreneurs aids in decision-making while helping minimize risk. “All those things end up benefiting society effectively.”

And while the university hopes the Hub and the future innovation district will generate new industry and bring business to Lubbock, Tech also hopes this emphasis will help keep the region’s best ideas and brightest minds in the area. Both Gramm and Heppert insist that Lubbock’s future hinges on its ability to retain talent. The tech industry is hungry for a young, educated, talented workforce. Texas Tech produces that workforce, but those students often leave Lubbock to pursue opportunities in the Metroplex, Austin or either coast.

It would be much better for the area if they stuck around and let Lubbock benefit from their talent, energy and entrepreneurial spirit. “That vision is really important as we talk about how we can attract and keep those students and individuals who want to stay in this region,” says Gramm.

As she and Heppert look toward that bright future, the Hub continues to hum with activity. Every week, its ecosystem of mentors and clients give big thinkers the opportunity to collaborate, network, and take advantage of local expertise in launching their endeavors. “The people of West Texas are doers,” Gramm says. “Entrepreneurship and innovation are a function of doing. You have to have people willing to roll up their sleeves and collaborate through some of the gaps we have in resources. You’re working with people who might not know everything or have everything that they need, but they’re willing to roll up their sleeves and find solutions. That’s at the heart of how we’re developing our innovation district. It’s about the people.”

This article originally appeared on Lubbock Avalanche-Journal: Feature: Launching Lubbock Startups

AdChoices
AdChoices

More from Lubbock Avalanche-Journal

Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon